Georgia’s Orthodox churches—with their vivid frescoes behind unassuming stone walls—rightly attract thousands of local and foreign admirers every year. But these churches aren’t the only historic buildings that place Georgia on the global architectural map. Tucked away in the mountain valleys of Adjara, only a few hours’ drive from Batumi’s beach resorts and casinos, are dozens of wooden mosques alive with carvings and paintings. Unknown even to most Georgians, these mosques are a rich, globally significant legacy of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled present-day Adjara for centuries until the 1878 Russian imperial conquest. Despite their cultural value, these monuments may not be around much longer. Today, Adjaran mosques face either collapse from lack of maintenance or heavy-handed reconstruction.
What makes Adjara’s mosques so distinctive? It is certainly not their exteriors, which are often unassuming and differ little from a typical village house of the region. But step inside and one is dazzled by unparalleled woodcarving and delightful figurative paintings. This is, in short, an expression of a first-rate vernacular artistic vision. It was also a collaborative, multi-cultural affair. After building the structure, villagers would frequently invite traveling craftsmen to render the interior in wood and paint what would be stone and tile elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. These artisans, however, were often Laz, an ethnic group straddling present-day Georgia and Turkey. The result was an Ottoman mosque, built by Georgian-speaking Muslims, and decorated by Laz craftsmen.
Adjaran mosques have their origins in Ottoman-governed western Georgia (1555-1878). Conversion to Islam proceeded gradually, and (for the most part) voluntarily, accelerating after 1820—a date that coincides with the earliest surviving mosques in the region. Incorporation into the Orthodox Christian Russian Empire did little to slow mosque construction in the region. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century the Tsar counted more Muslim subjects than the Ottoman Sultan, and Russian authorities increasingly saw the appeal of a laissez-faire approach to Muslim populations. Borders between the present-day provinces of Adjara (Georgia), and Artvin and Ardahan (Turkey), remained fairly porous throughout Russian rule, creating an intertwined artistic culture as master craftsmen traveled between nominally Ottoman and Russian communities to decorate new mosques.
Despite the Soviet Union’s anti-religious campaigns, its policies also inadvertently preserved Adjara’s religious monuments for nearly a century: converting mosques for secular purposes also often meant preserving their physical structure. Shortly after Turkey’s 1921 surrender of the region, Bolshevik officials recorded one hundred and fifty-eight mosques in Adjara—although the Red Army was so slow to occupy its remote mountain villages that mosques continued to be built well into the 1920s. But by 1936, only two registered mosques remained. Their disappearance was not, however, the result of destruction but rather of repurposing—in villages so isolated and in a time of chronic shortages, even the most militant of Bolshevik atheists could not advocate wanton demolition. The buildings were instead converted: to agricultural storage, to schools, and to administrative offices. Although many were lost (frequent conversion to hay and fertilizer storehouses made them particularly vulnerable to fire), dozens remained more or less preserved in their early twentieth century form.
At least fifty Adjaran mosques survived the Soviet era, most in the mountain municipalities of Khulo, Shuakhevi, and Keda. Poverty, too, helped preserve the mosques. A 2003 United Nations study found that Adjara—and these mountain municipalities in particular—was by far Georgia’s poorest region. Adjara’s mosques have consequently remained suspended in a state of “preservation by neglect” for the last two decades, despite the post-Soviet revival of religious faith in the region. This precarious state may preserve the mosques’ original details, but it also threatens their very existence.
The fate of Adjaran mosques currently depends on how villages attempt to resolve the ongoing tension between the desire to preserve historic elements and the need to make religious spaces safe and accessible in a harsh climate. Most mountain communities have witnessed dramatic population loss as families leave in the wake of periodic landslides and chronic unemployment. With falling attendance, less money for maintenance, and minimal state recognition of Islamic heritage, local imams are faced with a stark choice: either let their village mosque become a ruin, or solicit help from neighboring Turkey. Turkey, which increasingly pursues a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy with its former imperial territories, is only too happy to offer support for mosque reconstruction. But rather than repair the old buildings, Turkish funders often support the construction of entirely new ones made from concrete and adorned with tiles. Disused historic mosques are sometimes dismantled and relocated—a common practice in Adjara, where building materials are scarce—to a village’s high-elevation summer pastures, where they face even harsher weather and less maintenance. Only a few mosques have received regional heritage recognition, which generally confers more status than it does actual assistance.
Adjara is not the only region in Georgia with an Islamic heritage. Indeed, Georgians often forget that many of their great-grandparents were Ottoman citizens. But Adjara is home to the highest concentration of Islamic architecture anywhere in Georgia. Moreover, the regions’ mosques are distinctive both in the world of Islam and compared to other Georgian mosques. For example, in Samtskhe-Javakheti region—neighboring Adjara to the East—Meskhetian Muslims (who either converted to Islam under Ottoman rule or settled in Georgia from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire) built stone mosques with more traditional domed roofs. Paintings on the domes bear a striking resemblance to those in Adjara and date to approximately the same period (1890-1920), suggesting that painters may have moved between the two communities. Far fewer mosques survive in this region, however, as Soviet authorities deported the Meskhetian population to Central Asia in 1944 and repopulated their emptied villages with Christian Georgians from other regions. Even fewer historic mosques survive further East in Kvemo Kartli region, which borders Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russians captured Eastern Georgia from the Qajars in the early nineteenth century, ending Islamic rule in the region decades earlier than in Adjara. Perhaps as a consequence of this reduced regional influence, no known Safavid or Qajar mosques survive to the present intact, and only a few late nineteenth and early twentieth century sites (today much modified) escaped demolition in East Georgia’s rapid Soviet industrialization.
Ultimately, our survey project aims to promote a broader understanding of Georgia’s contribution to Islamic architecture, both in Georgia and abroad. Detailed information about design and décor made accessible to international audiences sheds light on the region’s Ottoman past and multiconfessional present. As the former Ottoman Empire fractured into new states, so too did the study of its architecture. Ottoman mosques in the Caucasus are studied as Georgian architecture while Ottoman mosques in the Balkans are studied as Albanian or Bosnian architecture, providing little opportunity to make meaningful comparison. Ideally, our surveys can also serve a practical purpose by providing a guide for future preservation projects or a record of sites altered by damage or reconstruction.
Upcoming Exhibition: “Wooden Mosques: Islamic Architectural Heritage in Adjara” runs 22 June through 6 July 2018 at the National Research Center for Georgian Art History and Heritage Preservation (9 Atoneli Street, Tbilisi). The gallery is free and open to the public 12:00-18:00 (Monday-Friday) and 12:00-17:00 (Saturday-Sunday). The exhibition was produced by Suzanne Harris-Brandts and Angela Wheeler (researchers) and Vladimer Shioshvili (photographer) with support from the Graham Foundation and Open Society Georgia.
More info about the wooden mosques in Adjara is here: www.indigenousoutsiders.com
Project authors and researchers: Suzanne Harris- Brandts, Angela Wheeler
Photos: Vladimer Shioshvili